On Appeal: Review of Criminal Cases in a Higher Court
For most defendants who lost their cases, sentencing was the end of the road; their hopes and their chances were over. A handful -- with money, energy, and (they hoped) an issue -- took an appeal. During most of the period, only one court in the state, the Supreme Court of California, heard appeals from Superior Court. A few defendants found good fortune there; the rest merely postponed the day of reckoning. Appeals gave the higher court a chance to correct mistakes in the lower courts; appeal cases also generated written opinions. These made up a kind of running commentary on criminal law. They were the cases (if any) that lawyers read and studied and that jurists wrote about. A few became famous or notorious; hence they possibly had some effect on what a broader public thought about criminal justice, too.
Under California law, either party in a felony case could take "questions of law" to the Supreme Court (§ 1235).1 The defendant could appeal if he was convicted, or if the judge denied his motion for a new trial.2 The state had to swallow an acquittal, no matter how wrong-headed it was; there was no right to complain. The state did have a limited right to appeal; it could challenge a demurrer, an order for a new trial, an order arresting judgment, or an order affecting "the substantial rights of the people" (§ 1237).3 Petitions for habeas corpus could also go to the high court (§ 1473).
Before 1880, criminal appeals were rare in Alameda County. On the____________________